But a Storm Is Blowing From Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Through painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and video, But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa presents a spectrum of artistic voices and critical concerns from a rapidly evolving region. Interwoven with questions around the Middle East and North Africa’s colonial histories, the exhibition investigates themes such as movement, migration, architecture, and the process of uncovering hidden ideas or “conceptual contraband.”

Having fled Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, and lived as a refugee in India and Germany before immigrating to the United States, Lida Abdul considers herself a nomadic artist. Her films, videos, and installations address themes of cultural identity, migration, and the processes of destruction and displacement that have marked the history of Afghanistan.

In these bronze casts of plants native to the Tigris and Euphrates river systems of Mesopotamia (an ancient region roughly coincident with contemporary Iraq), Abbas Akhavan explores the environmental devastation resulting from war. Akhavan has mined the visual and conceptual languages of the monument to produce forms that appear fragmented and out of proportion; some are also charred and oxidized from exposure to air and light. This distortion and degradation suggests that the plants have lost their previous symbolic significance, undergoing a change in status from regal to humble. The artist’s decision to place the casts on the floor atop white sheets introduces references to the display of smuggled artifacts and the presentation of human bodies ravaged by disaster in makeshift funeral displays.

For Untitled (Ghardaïa), Kader Attia sculpted a scale model of the Algerian city of the title in couscous, a regional culinary staple. The fragile and ephemeral structure is accompanied by two prints portraying foundational Western modernist architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, and by a copy of a UNESCO certificate that officially designates the city of Ghardaïa a World Heritage Site. Attia’s work calls attention to the fact that both designers borrowed from and reworked the Mozabite architecture native to the city of Ghardaïa, and to the ancient Mzab region, without acknowledging their inspiration, itself derived from France’s nineteenth-century colonization of Algeria and subsequent exploitation of its resources.

Inspired by Italian author Italo Calvino’s unfinished book of lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), Ergin Çavuşoğlu weaves three seemingly unconnected but ultimately complimentary narratives into a dramatic meditation on social norms and moral codes. In one scenario, a man is seen cutting and polishing a diamond; in another, a group of actors rehearses The House with the Mezzanine, an 1896 play by Anton Chekov about a clash between peasants and city dwellers; and in a third, a group of friends discusses, over a Turkish meal, a proposed film about children forced to smuggle black-market goods across the treacherous Turkish-Syrian border. Where Calvino explores the application of ideas around polarity and regenerative force in a literary context, Çavuşoğlu makes them visual through the metaphorical opposition of images of crystal (the diamond) and flame (the restaurant’s grill).

As its title suggests, Ergin Çavuşoğlu’s installation Dust Breeding makes reference to American photographer and painter Man Ray’s famous 1920 photograph Dust Breeding (Duchamp’s Large Glass with Dust Motes), which depicts the named artist’s iconic work in the studio having accumulated a year’s worth of environmental dirt. Çavuşoğlu’s reworking of this project also revolves around the documentation of ephemeral matter. The artist invites visitors to walk across a section of an anamorphic floor drawing based on a three-dimensional model of a cement factory in Turkey. Recording their actions with a closed-circuit television camera, he uses a monitor to relay the surreal-looking images, which seem to show visitors standing inside a sculpture.

Trembling Landscapes
An ongoing part of Ali Cherri’s research, which he pursues through film, video, drawing, printmaking, and performance, is an investigation into the effects of catastrophe—both man-made and geological—on his native Lebanon and its neighboring territories. Trembling Landscapes—Beirut (Paysages Tremblants—Beirut) belongs to a series of aerial maps representing Algiers, Beirut, Damascus, Erbil, Makkah, and Tehran. The cities that Cherri has selected are situated on active fault lines, the coordinates of which are marked with red stamps. The precarity of these landscapes is paralleled by the social and political unrest that has come to characterize their locations. Cherri’s restrained cartographic diagrams offer an alternative to the media’s explicit representations of disaster by investigating the region’s geologic fissures.

Ori Gersht’s video is set in the Pyrenees in the turbulent year of 1940, during the Nazi occupation of France. At this time, the borderline mountain range offered both an escape route from Nazi-occupied Europe and a way for communists to flee General Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. Those who undertook these journeys were dubbed evaders. Gersht’s work alludes to the final journey of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who traveled from France to Spain with the intention of entering Portugal before heading to the United States. Tragically, Benjamin was denied entry and subsequently committed suicide. These events are allegorized by the severe weather conditions and poor visibility encountered by the video’s protagonist, and by the portentous scenery.

Mariam Ghani’s video traces the parallel histories of two distinguished buildings—the Museum Fridericianum built by Simon Louis du Ry in Kassel, Germany, in 1779, and the Darul Aman Palace built by Walter Harten in Kabul in 1929—examining their discrete ideological associations. In spite of the buildings’ divergent locations and sociopolitical contexts, they remain united by various similarities of structural detail informed by German neoclassicism. The Darul Aman Palace, which was emblematic of King Amanullah Khan’s plans for the country’s modernization and originally earmarked as the seat of its future parliament, is now a ruin. By contrast, its German counterpart, the first public museum in Europe, was restored in the early 1980s and now presents exhibitions of contemporary art.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore the archive and the document as tools for representing trauma, specifically their personal experience of the devastating Lebanese Civil War. In this installation, the artists confront the titular images in a variety of ways, structuring their project around the biography of a fictitious aging photographer named Abdallah Farah, who has been recording the changing cultural and political landscape of Beirut. The work’s centerpiece is a book containing rolls of film that picture Lebanon’s war years. We do not see the rolls’ visual content, but are instead presented with meticulous written descriptions that are contextualized as having been taken from the photographer’s notebook. Hadjithomas and Joreige thereby explore the limitations of the image by evoking its erasure.

Rokni Haerizadeh couches political messages in skillfully executed paintings, drawings, and collages. Since 2009, he has painted directly onto photographs, often transforming news images into satirical scenes populated by surreal animal-human hybrids, citing Persian mythology as one inspiration. In But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, Haerizadeh paints on printed stills of YouTube videos and television news broadcasts of events in the Middle East and North Africa. The results are grotesque abstractions of ubiquitous contemporary images that point to the originals’ untrustworthy status. The title, which is taken from a description of Paul Klee’s 1920 print Angelus Novus written by Walter Benjamin, is consistent with the work’s piquant fusion of emotion and critique.

The structure of the drawings that make up Susan Hefuna’s Building was inspired by the act of walking through the gridded streets of New York City. Each of the work’s nine parts was completed at a single sitting by applying Indian ink to two layers of tracing paper. These layers interact with one another to establish a dialogue between abstracted geometric shapes in which angular and circular lines are incorporated into network-like designs. These are reminiscent of the matrices of horizontal and vertical lines that characterize modernist metropolitan architecture, and the complex latticework—which is both decorative and functional—of classical Islamic Mashrabiya window screens.

Heritage Studies #10 is one entry in an ongoing series begun in 2015 that looks at artworks, objects, and structures from the past in an attempt to understand their relevance to the present and possibly the future. The series consists of displays based on objects and other elements from museums, each of which is identified by an accompanying caption. These span different historical regions and cultural lineages. Heritage Studies #10 is a copper sculpture with a caption that reads “Column from the Great Colonnade of the Newly Founded Capital Samarra.” The term used as the series’ title signifies a return to the past that has been carried out with a practical contemporary aim in mind.

Illegal street vendors—primarily of African, Arab, and South Asian origin—often congregate at Il Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice to sell counterfeit goods to tourists. To avoid unwanted encounters with the authorities, they are often required to scoop up their wares in the rugs that they use for display and flee across the bridge. This journey to temporary safety is not only physical, but also metaphorical insofar as it encapsulates both the whimsical orientalist fantasy of the flying carpet and the harsh realities experienced by undocumented immigrants who cross the Mediterranean in search of better lives. The proportions of Kaabi-Linke’s sculptural meditation on this scenario—a complex assembly of suspended grids—come directly from those of the vendors’ rugs.

Initially trained as a musician, Mohammed Kazem is influenced by the Dada and Fluxus movements, and was mentored by pioneering Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. Kazem’s artworks often record actions that challenge the physical and perceptual limits of the human body; many are also embedded with experiments in sound. Scratches on Paper is a ten-meter-long monochrome scroll that the artist has inscribed, using a pair of scissors, with countless linear markings that together form a richly textured surface. The work thus records a rhythmic gesture and alludes to the noise of its production.

Hassan Khan’s sculpture reproduces the handrail outside the downtown Cairo headquarters of Egypt’s Banque Misr, the first bank in the country to have been Egyptian-owned. The original handrail, encountered frequently by the artist on his daily walks through the city, has both architectural resonance in its connotations of hierarchy and socioeconomic implications in its intimate association with a major financial institution. Khan’s recreation of the feature as a sleek sculpture suggests that we regard it not as a Duchampian found object, but as an artifact in its own right. Neither ascending nor descending, the bannister appears instead to float, occupying an ambiguous position between diverse formal, historical, and stylistic poles.

In 2013, artist and physician Ahmed Mater was given permission by the Saudi Arabian government to film the Islamic city of Makkah and the grand mosque Al Masjid al-Haram, which houses the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. Over the course of the past decade, Makkah has undergone extensive gentrification, due in part to the increasing number of people performing the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage. Mater thus records a city that continues to change both physically and geopolitically. The photographs and video in these works were taken from a Saudi Arabian army helicopter on the lookout for unsanctioned pilgrims concealed by the mountainous terrain, and offer an acute commentary on the militarization of the sacred city.

In 2013, artist and physician Ahmed Mater was given permission by the Saudi Arabian government to film the Islamic city of Makkah and the grand mosque Al Masjid al-Haram, which houses the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. Over the course of the past decade, Makkah has undergone extensive gentrification, due in part to the increasing number of people performing the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage. Mater thus records a city that continues to change both physically and geopolitically. The photographs and video in these works were taken from a Saudi Arabian army helicopter on the lookout for unsanctioned pilgrims concealed by the mountainous terrain, and offer an acute commentary on the militarization of the sacred city.

Zineb Sedira’s video features an interview with Safia Kouaci, widow of Algerian photojournalist Mohamed Kouaci, whose documentation of his country’s colonial and independent history has largely been overlooked. The interview takes place at Safia’s home, where she maintains an archive of her late husband’s images. This collection records Kouaci’s work in 1950s Paris, where he was involved with the Algerian National Liberation Front, and his life in exile in Tunis, where he worked for the Ministry of Information of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic. It also traces his return to Algeria after independence to work as the government’s official photographer. Sedira’s video touches on several key historical events that have affected the lives of the artist and her interviewee.

Exploring the ideological associations of Iraq’s buildings and monuments, Ala Younis’s Plan for Greater Baghdad is composed of models, documents, and found materials. The installation was inspired by a set of 35 mm slides taken in 1982 by architect Rifat Chadirji, which depicts a Baghdad gym designed by Le Corbusier and named after Saddam Hussein. Younis presents the gym’s development in the form of two twenty-five-year timelines leading up to its construction in 1980. These parallel architectural narratives reveal much about the history of Baghdad during a turbulent period that witnessed five military coups and the rise to power of six different heads of state. The work’s title refers to Frank Lloyd Wright’s unrealized late-1950s proposal for a cultural complex and university on the outskirts of the city.

Credits: Story

But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa is organized by Sara Raza, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Middle East and North Africa. The exhibition was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York April 29–October 5, 2016.

Learn more at guggenheim.org/map.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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